Prefab Sprout | Blinded With Science

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I never realized Thomas Dolby had produced Steve McQueen. Back then, I didn't care whose name was affixed to which release; all that mattered was the sound, the band, the way it made me feel.

 

This was supposed to be a story about Prefab Sprout, a touted ‘80s (and '90s, and '00s) British band that wrote melodic, poetic, whisper-soft and intelligent pop music. Frontman Paddy McAloon had the smoothest voice this side of Cole Porter; following a health scare (which rendered him nearly blind), McAloon returned last year to revisit some of his classic tracks, giving them a new, acoustic bent.

The original album is, of course, Prefab Sprout's Steve McQueen (known as Two Wheels Good in this country; hell, until recently, even I didn't realize the two names were synonymous). It was the Sprouts' second release (the first in America), and the one that is still highly regarded today. So much so, in fact, that Sony Legacy recently commissioned producer Thomas Dolby (yes! The very one who sang "(She Blinded Me) With Science") to redo the album—meaning he took 1985's masters and mixed them with today's technology, thereby restoring some of the artistic and sonic intent of the original sessions.

In spinning the reissue, I was struck by two things: One, this album has certainly held up over the years. Whereas certain albums fully epitomize the year or the era in which they were released, Steve McQueen is as timeless today as it was back then. It's crisp, honest, thoughtful pop music, beautifully sung and strummed and grooved and (yes, OK; I'll say it) crooned. When McAloon sings about love or desire or infidelity, I'm still there with him; I can still relate to every word, sigh, chord, beat. I still believe.

The other thing that struck me is that I never realized Thomas Dolby had produced the album. Back then, I didn't care whose name was affixed to which release; all that mattered was the sound, the band, the way it made me feel.

And herein lies the irony (and this reviewer's admission): Steve McQueen (or Two Wheels Good, as I knew it by the title stretched across my 12-inch vinyl) was pretty much the only Prefab Sprout album I owned. Eventually, years later, I checked out Jordan the Comeback from the library, and I may have even (gasp!) taped it to listen to later. But it never held me like Steve McQueen, which is perfect, pleasing from first note to last.

And as for Thomas Dolby, well, I never bought into the science or the Aliens Ate My Buick schtick (sorry, sir; you were quite a charming interview). But White City, Dolby's 1985 (coincidence?) release? Totally up my alley. One of my favorite car trip soundtracks still. Sparse and haunting and, yes, a little bit weird ("Hyperactive" remains one of my favorite songs of Dolby's—but then, maybe it's just the idea of tracing all your problems back to your childhood; hi, Mom!).

So it made sense to me, then, that Dolby had been at the helm of McQueen. And despite my affinity for singer-songwriters, I wasn't at all disappointed to learn I would be interviewing the album's producer and not its singer-songwriter-mastermind. Dolby, after all, was a singer-songwriter himself, to say nothing of turning out to be one of the most intelligent and well-spoken interviews of my career.

So in lieu of chopping the man's thoughtful (and thought-provoking) words into a narrative, I've decided to give them to you pretty much as they unspooled. You will marvel, you will learn. And hopefully, you will want to seek out Prefab Sprout's legendary Steve McQueen (did I mention the recently reissued version comes with a second disc of McAloon's reimagined acoustic versions of many of the songs? Breathaking, it is), and Dolby's prowess behind the board.

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Back when you produced this album in 1985, critics were saying that you had smoothed out the kinks.

I love the kinks; I think that's what made [Prefab Sprout] really special, that there was something intangible about them, about the choices they made. They were completely untrained. Paddy obviously was the central figure and songwriter, but Martin [McAloon] had grown up playing bass along with guitar, and his bass playing is almost a prosthetic extension of guitar playing. When I first met the band, Wendy [Smith] was almost the band's personal assistant. She was the one sent out to get them cheeseburgers or make them bacon sandwiches—snacks between meals, you know—and occasionally she was called upon to sing a harmony part. [Laughs] So, I loved the oddness of the whole thing. The lyrical choices, the very oblique imagery that still added up to something very special; I liked all of that.

Paddy was a lyricist first and foremost. He would write his lyrics half-poetry, and would strum along with them and find melodies. When he brought in a band, they would try to accommodate some of the strange phrasing and rhythm changes in his songs, and it would end up being a too involved, too musician-ly, too demanding of a complete rock arrangement. So the first job I had was to smooth out some of those edges and just say, "If you take a beat here or add in a bar there or if you simplify this chord in here, you could make it a lot more accessible and easy to digest." My goal was not to homogenize the music at all, far from it. I wanted to preserve the oddness of it, but I wanted to make it an easier listen.

Since Paddy does have such a strong vision, at least lyrically, how open was he to your suggestions?

Amazingly open. I'm astonished looking back that they gave me such a free hand, because I was a recording artist in my own right, and I was very opinionated. It would have been very easy for them to just resist allowing me to get my hands on it and manipulate the music in any way that might have taken away from the band's identity. Actually, they were very supportive and cooperative, and working with them was a breeze.

What about with the remaster?

It was left up to me. The aim was to allow the music to breathe in the digital age. When you master to vinyl, you have to make some concessions and sacrifices to get it to plastic. You'd be amazed—to go to mastering room and see people with microscopes looking at the grooves they were cutting with the lathe, it was like H.G. Wells compared to if you go today and you're just looking over someone's shoulder at a computer. It was very often quite hard to actually cut onto vinyl the music the way it was recorded so you'd cut corners. Nowadays, anything that you can hear you can reproduce digitally, and so we were able to in a way make a more faithful reproduction of the music the way it was recorded in the studio.

In what ways do you find technology has changed music since you started?

The main thing is economically. If you were lucky enough to get noticed by a big record company and put in the studio, then you were spending an enormous amount of someone else's money and you had one shot to get it right if you got it right then you hoped that it got played on the radio, and before the public ever got to hear it there was this whole other [layer] that you had to go through. And if all of that went well, then you basically had a snapshot of one of those songs in one single state and you'd have to live or die by that for decades to come.

In reality, with a songwriter like Paddy, when he writes a song, it will sound different according to the mood, context, and audience. If he plays it in a sweaty rock club, it will sound different than if he plays it at a winery on a midsummer night. And over time—he's older and wiser now—he might put a different weight and meaning behind the same word than he would when he was 21. But unfortunately you're saddled with one particular rendition of your song in those days. And the fact that Paddy was able to do new versions of several of these songs; it's not just a case of the original and the new version.

What I love about the modern day and age, with podcasts and downloads and iTunes and all the rest of it, is that you can have multiple versions of the same song and there is no single definitive version of it that you have to live by. So in answer to your question, that's what I love about the modern era. Instead of having this narrow window and this all-or-nothing approach, you can have multiple shots. The music stays more fluid now.

In what ways do you think music's harder now? Or do you?

I don't really think it is harder, actually. In a way, in those days, it was so hard to become a signed artist on a roster of labels; it was really quite cushy once you were on board. As I'm sure you've heard from the majority of signed artists [now], all they want is to get out of their contracts. So I actually think that today is superior in every way. It's not great if you're a record company executive, or if you're an old-school musician that's unable to adapt, but I think for musicians and music fans, there's more diversity. The music you hear is less filtered by the executives, the networks, the radio programmers; it's more of a meritocracy.

You have powerful media like YouTube or MySpace, which are true meritocracies. There's no committee sitting down and deciding what the public does and doesn't get to hear; it's based solely on popularity. The barrier to entry is lower than ever—anyone with a song. It's not hard to figure out how to record it and get it out there. So it's very empowering for musicians, especially those still in college and high school, who don't have to deal with the baggage we had to. I think the result, before very long, will be a new revolution in music, music that won't be contaminated by any of the pitfalls of the industry. | Laura Hamlett

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